A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Anatolian, So No Reindeer: Happy Feast of St, Nicholas of Myra!

Today, December 6, is the Feast Day of the fourth-century Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, marked in the Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox traditions on the same date. Born at Patara (near Gelemiş in today's Turkey) in southwestern Anatolia about AD 270, he rose to fame as Bishop of Myra (the ruins of which are outside Demre, Turkey). He attended the Council of Nicaea, defended Orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, was famed for generosity and gift-giving. He is a particularly popular saint in the Orthodox tradition, especially in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He is less venerated in the West as an actual historical figure, but is better known under a distortion of his name: Santa Claus.

He was an Anatolian Greek (Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until after AD 1071), who is not known to have any association with the North Pole, and doubtless never saw a reindeer, let alone the flying kind.

No shortage of miracles came to be attributed to hem; he is often known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Among many stories told were that he gave gifts secretly to those in need, including paying the dowries of three sisters who could not afford them. That presumably contributed to the gift-giving tradition. In the last days of pagan Rome, he was imprisoned in the persecution of Diocletian, but was freed under Constantine, and attended the Council of Nicaea as Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD, hence the day became his feast day. He was buried in a Cathedral named for him in Myra. But his remains did not rest in peace. After the Seljuq Turks took over Myra in the 1080s, the Italian cities of Bari and Venice sought to compete to move his relics (and their lucrative pilgrimage trade) to Italy. in 1087, merchants from Bari made off with St. Nick's bones.

(Stealing saints was actually not that uncommon. In 828 AD, Venetian merchants famously stole the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, traditional Apostle of Egypt, and took them to Venice, where they reside in the great Cathedral of San Marco.)

With that note, I begin my Christmas blogging, since the Middle East has more dates for Christmas than the rest of the world.

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